“The problem,” writes Nicholas Kristof, “is not so much overt racists. Rather, the larger problem is a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in racial equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.”
This problem seems obvious to me, but many people—especially political conservatives—among those who consider themselves enlightened continue to claim that racism is no longer a problem in America and imply that what racial disadvantages remain are black Americans’ fault. Many who don’t deny the reality of racism suggest that it is no longer a problem by directing their attention and indignation in any racial controversy to anything but the problem, instead criticizing opportunistic race hustlers like Al Sharpton, for example, or talking solely about how far the nation has come, or treating any concern with racism as white liberal self-flagellation.
Judging from their reactions, most don’t seem to believe it possible that racial prejudice is a deep problem, nor to suspect that their reaction to that possibility might express their own unrecognized prejudices. They rarely talk about racism as a causal factor in American life.
Kristof presents the dismaying evidence for his thoughts about the “enlightened.” For example, a study of the way people evaluate résumés:
Two scholars sent out nearly 5,000 résumés in response to help-wanted ads, randomly alternating between stereotypically white-sounding names and black-sounding names. They found that it took 50 percent more mailings to get a callback for a black name. A white name yielded as much benefit as eight years of experience, according to the study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
One study using a video game found that players shoot at armed black characters quicker than they do at armed whites and holster their weapons quicker for unarmed white characters than for unarmed blacks. This is creepy.
Kristof directs his attention to the “enlightened”—those who think that they’re not racist but are so at levels they don’t recognize, which would include almost all of us. (I’m thinking of people likely to be reading this website and its peers.) That, speaking as one of the people whom Kristof describes, we harbor racist assumptions without knowing it seems, as I said, kind of obvious, though it’s very useful to have studies to prove it because it’s one of those obvious truths we don’t like to admit and whose expression we neither see nor understand.
This would be true for anyone whose race or culture has a longstanding dominant and oppressive relation to another. Listen to many Englishmen talk about the Irish and at some point you will hear something assuming their fecklessness and childishness, and the speaker will not realize that he’s said anything bigoted at all. Listen to many people of all sorts talk about the Jews and you will often hear some shockingly overt statement of antisemitism, again said with no consciousness that it’s an expression of bigotry. Listen to some wealthy people talk about the middle class, never mind about the poor.
Kristof notes what he calls the “remarkable” progress in America, offering as evidence the increase in those who approve of interracial marriage, from just 4 percent in 1958 to 87 percent today. (It’s a little disturbing that one in 8 Americans still rejects it.) But I think—no, I know—that a large portion of that 87 percent would freeze open-mouthed were they to go to the front door to meet their daughter’s fiancé and find a black man standing there.
Prejudice doesn’t always flow out, like dirt from a dishcloth in the wash. It also sinks in, like ink into a sponge, or better, like water into a carpet that dries on the surface but feeds mold underneath. The overt racism of our ancestors, which we find repellent, becomes in us after two or three generations a feeling that there’s something different about black people, something not quite right, or at least not quite us. You don’t see this feeling in yourself, of course, but you act on it.
For the Christian, this is only Pauline or Augustinian realism. (That is, a realist view of human nature that conservatives are supposed to endorse but don’t always.) As the prophet Jeremiah noted, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” The heart, the organ of perception, is corrupt and deceptive. Among its deceptions is telling you that you are a better person than you are—in the matter we’re discussing, that enlightened white people are edenically free of prejudice against black people.
It isn’t true, and the illusion that it is leads us to fail in that sympathy for the poor and marginalized—in this case our black fellow Americans—central to the Christian life, part of which is taking their claims and their stories seriously, and not thinking so highly of ourselves that we can’t hear what they have to tell us.